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Timeline - Earthquakes

An interactive look at some of the historical aspects of Earthquakes. Find out more about these unpredictable forces by browsing or searching the Science Learning Hub.

1705

A discovery by Robert Hooke

Robert Hooke realised that earthquakes are connected to land movements.

1755

Modern studies begin

A huge earthquake and tsunami in Portugal killed over 70,000 people. This marked the start of modern earthquake studies, as people began to collect data to help understand the events.

1840

Electromagnetic seismograph invented

Luigi Palmieri invented the first accurate electromagnetic seismograph, which could detect earthquakes not felt by humans.

1850

Seismic waves discovered

Robert Mallet realised that most earthquake damage is due to moving waves caused by a sudden land movement, named seismic waves.

1855

Layer of rocks discovery

John Pratt and George Airy suggested that surface rocks float on a layer of denser rock.

1872

Fault lines proposition

Grove Gilbert figured out that earthquakes are centred around fault lines.

1889

Seismometer detection

For the first time, a seismometer (in Germany) detected an earthquake on the other side of the Earth (in Japan).

1897

P-waves and S-waves

Richard Oldham realised that there were at least two types of seismic waves that travelled at different speeds. We know these now as P-waves and S-waves.

1904

Atomic reactions

Ernest Rutherford claimed that the Earth is heated by atomic reactions.

1906

New thinking about fault lines

After the most destructive earthquake in American history at San Francisco, Harry Reid suggested that earthquakes are the result of stresses built up along faults.

1909

Probing inside the Earth

Andrija Mohorovicic realised that you could use seismic waves to probe the hidden Earth.

1912

Continental drift

Alfred Wegener put forward the idea of continental drift. His theory was that the continents were once joined to form a giant supercontinent that he called Pangaea.

1914

7,000km at the core

Beno Gutenberg used seismic waves to estimate the diameter of the Earth’s core as 7,000 kilometres – a size that is still thought to be correct.

1921

Colliding supercontinents

Alexander du Toit suggested that mountains are formed by colliding continents. He also suggested that Pangaea divided into two supercontinents. He called the northern supercontinent Laurasia and the southern one Gondwana.

1930

Convection and continental drift

Harry Hess proposed convection currents in the mantle as a mechanism for continental drift.

1931

How much damage?

Guiseppe Mercalli created the Modified Mercalli Scale to measure earthquake damage, based on a scale originally made in 1902.

1935

Measuring magnitude

Charles Richter and Beno Gutenberg developed a new magnitude scale for earthquakes, now known as the Richter Scale.

1936

P-waves measure inner core

Inge Lehmann used data from P-waves to suggest the existence of an inner core to the Earth.

1961

Monitoring earthquakes worldwide

A worldwide earthquake monitoring system was set up. Several systems now exist, including the Global Seismographic Network. They contribute to the understanding of plate tectonics and other Earth processes.

Late 1960s

Plate tectonics

The realisation that ocean floors behave differently to continents led to the theory of plate tectonics.

1995

Discovering slow slips

First slow slip events noticed in Japan and Canada. These are helping to explain plate movement and stress build-up in subduction zones.

1996

Inner core movement

Xiaodong Song and Paul Richards, using P-waves, discovered that the solid inner core rotates freely within the fluid outer core and at a different speed to the rest of the Earth.

2002

New Zealand’s slow slip

First slow slip events recorded in New Zealand.

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